Stick Music – Clogs
I will be the first to admit that my knowledge of classical music is …er, limited, to say the least. It is not the grandiose themes, the meticulously arranged depth, or the prodigious skill displayed by the greats, both past and present; as shallow as it seems, it is the universal accessibility that deterred my ears, coupled with a rebellious streak that abhorred anything senior citizens may listen to and deem "pleasant." But my close-minded opinion may not have been so shallow or so superficial had I been introduced to the genre by Clogs, an immensely talented band of Australian and American classical musicians that fuel their string-laden pieces with improvisational prowess.
Formed in the late 1990s, Clogs are the brainchild of Padma Newsome (viola/violin) who was born in Australia and trained and performed as a concert violinist in the ’80s. He was awarded a Fulbright scholarship which took him to the Yale School of Music, where he met Bryce Dessner (guitar), Rachel Elliott (bassoon) and Thomas Kozumplik (percussion). Now, what has been written so far would previously have compelled me to turn this page just as quickly as I have fled from many classical AM radio stations with a fumbling twist of the knob. However, the interaction between this quartet is something that fans of improvisational music – whether jazz or jam – can relate to. Clogs developed a writing process that reflects both aforementioned genres, whereby they utilized rehearsals, live shows and impromptu jam sessions to mold riffs and themes that are later shaped by Newsome into vast musical creations embodying both classical form and fearless experimentation.
Clogs recently released their third album, Stick Music, further affirming their shape-shifting ability to take the most classic forms – in this case, utilizing strings – and morph them into blissful flights and dark, intense dirges within the same song. Adventurous themes decorate the overall sound of the album, furthered by the virtuosity of guest cellist Erik Friedlander. The results are both accessible and abstract, with the album’s weakness lying in the former. While the group circumnavigates sonic structures with precision and edge, their destinations are often discordant, sinewy cries of stroked strings. ‘Ananda Lahari’ and ‘Pencil Stick’ open the album with grace and flow, but from there, the album orbits further away from a cohesive core, eventually petering out with ‘Pitasi,’ a piece that ends like the flip of a switch to a nearly burned out light.
Stick Music is a success for Clogs and their cause. It is a vibrant peek into the potential of classically-influenced orchestrated works. With an open mind and without a net, the group emanates a succinct, dangerous edge in each of the nine tracks. But despite their success in obliterating preconceived notions of classical music, the album manages to traverse musical space that is often difficult to grasp. While I may not be hitting up the classical music section in my local record store any time soon, Clogs have successfully shown an intriguing perspective to form and execution; one that, it is safe to say, will remain far from the AM radio dial, and probably won’t ever be embraced by your grandmother.